Drop in school populace troubling sign

One of the disturbing demographic trends in Connecticut — multiple years of declining school enrollments — remains little discussed.
Virtually every town in southeastern Connecticut is facing smaller school enrollments. The same trend is happening statewide, with serious implications for the state's health.

Connecticut, once a vigorous economic engine fueled by insurance, defense, banks and manufacturing, is trying to find a new path toward growth, the challenge made more difficult because the cost of doing business in the state remains high. Meanwhile, Connecticut's bonded debt per-capita is among the highest in the nation and the cost of pensions for state workers is greater than in 48 other states.

The state is barely holding its own in population, hovering at just under 3.6 million. Job creation, which had been squalid for more than a decade, is showing some meager progress, but the reality is that people are not moving to the state because Connecticut isn't producing vigorous economic growth.

Connecticut's per-capita income is first or second in the nation year after year. In national comparisons, its population ranks as among the best educated. Yale is one of the great universities in the world and the University of Connecticut is emerging to achieve its potential as a great research university.

Yet many of the state's young people are going to other states where job opportunities are greater.

The result is that the population is aging, and school enrollment dropping. While these demographic trends will not reverse anytime soon, Connecticut needs to slow them by attracting young professionals to the state and creating the jobs necessary to keep more of its young people here.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is well aware of these problems, having inherited the poor job growth fed by the almost benign neglect of his predecessor, the Rell administration, and, before that, the long-term, expensive labor contracts with state unions approved by former Gov. John G. Rowland.

One of the great ironies of Connecticut state government is the reality that a brain drain exists despite Connecticut's massive investment in infrastructure for UConn and the ever more talented, intelligent students attracted to the school. Graduating seniors will go where the jobs are and Connecticut hasn't created them at anywhere near the rate it should have.

To his credit, Gov. Malloy is focusing on improving education in public schools to raise high school graduation rates and upgrade the quality of the education those diplomas represent. High school graduation rates are in the mid-80s percentile for all students, but Hispanic young people are graduating at rates still in the 60s and African-American students are in the low 70s. There remains a large performance gap between the percentage of white students graduating (over 90 percent) and their counterparts in the Hispanic and black communities, a product of income disparity.

The governor wisely is investing in pre-kindergarten schooling, and he has made an effort to match the educations of high school, technical school and community college students with the jobs available in the state's business community.

Further, he has invested in the University of Connecticut as the flagship state university tries to grow into a leading research center.

Gov. Malloy is correctly pursuing an economic strategy by which Connecticut can benefit from the growth of the techonology center. On Wednesday came word that the State Bond Commission is expected to approve today $20.5 million to convert two vacant buildings at Pfizer's Groton campus to house start-up businesses in the bioscience and technology data fields.

Also this week the Malloy administration announced a deal with United Technologies Corp. It will launch a major $500 million investment in its state-based research, training and corporate facilities in exchange for $400 million in tax relief.

On the fiscal front, in his first two years in office the governor won concessions from the state unions regarding pensions and health care.

Much more needs to be done to overcome the incestuous relationship between Democrats in the state legislature and state employee unions. Their political leverage with the legislature is far greater than it should be. But balancing the fiscal scales will require 20 years of firm policy by Gov. Malloy and his successors. The budget problems caused by underfunded pension and health care contracts are that big.

When anyone burrows into statistics in education, economics, manufacturing and the cost of government, it's tempting to pull them together and ask: whatever happened to the Connecticut its citizens knew?

It's a fair question to ask, one that Gov. Malloy no doubt asks himself frequently as he attempts to get the state out of this mess.

It's the debate the coming gubernatorial election needs to focus on.

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